China’s Overseas Influence Operations: Toolkit and Strategies
Listen to Audio
Also available on Stitcher
China employs a variety of tools to conduct overseas influence operations.
These operations are rooted in Beijing’s desire to develop its own discourse power, which Kenton Thibaut describes as “the power to speak or articulate a coherent and cohesive vision for the world order, and the power to be heard or having messaging around this vision gain buy-in from a global audience.” China’s toolkit ranges from overt public state messaging about Chinese values and norms, to investing in local media in the Global South, and even more covert means such as using unofficial networks to conduct espionage or spread false narratives.
Eleanor M. Albert: Today, our guest is Kenton Thibaut.
She is the resident China fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab based in Washington, DC. She is also a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University, where she focuses on China’s role in the global information environment and implications for authoritarian learning and resilience. Prior, she served as an associate at GreenPoint Group, a boutique strategic advisory firm where she conducted analysis in both Chinese and English on the implications of Chinese policies on client interests vis-à-vis U.S.-China commercial and foreign relations.
To start, I was wondering if you could give a little introduction about how you came about studying China and then its influence operations.
Kenton Thibaut: There were two pathways: first in how my interests evolved and then some methodological considerations that pushed me towards the more digital side of evidence gathering.
First, I was always way more interested in Chinese domestic politics, especially rural politics. At the time that I was studying it, the academic community was all atwitter about village elections and grassroots democracy in China. That shows you how old I am… I went and did some fieldwork in rural Sichuan for about a year, and I was really interested in how protestors were co-opting the language of the state to weaponize against local-level politicians and gaining bargaining power when airing their grievances. Of course, things tightened, but I also became interested after that in elite or party-level politics, the more top-down aspect of the state-society relationship.
Then I did work in the private sector in Chinese government relations for a while, helping multinationals navigate the Chinese bureaucracy, which was fun because it let me see how the sausage actually gets made, so to speak, the process part of Chinese bureaucracy. I started getting interested more in the external side of things, Chinese foreign policy and influence operations, more specifically around 2017/2018 when I started noticing China being a lot more aggressive about policing how Taiwan was being referred to in the media, for example, by companies on their websites, having Taiwan listed separately on your website… There were several high-profile cases where the Chinese government really went after a few companies. I think Marriott was one, a couple of airlines ….
And this, for me, marked the beginning of what I saw as a shift towards trying to change narratives about China—more of an external effort. Then came these really overt efforts to push back against largely Western criticisms of human rights abuses and forced labor accusations in Xinjiang, as well as growing activity to influence the narrative around Hong Kong, especially the protests there and the national security law around 2018/2019.
At this time, China was also growing more closed, and especially with COVID[-19], things really shut down. The Chinese counterparts with whom I would interact before COVID increasingly were very careful with their language; even the more liberal academics were very careful to stick to an official line. So this gets to the methodological push where this to me signaled a need to not rely on access to be a successful China analyst.
So I shifted my methodology a bit to focus more on digital forensics, digital footprints of influence, OSINT [open-source intelligence] tools, statistical analysis, and other methods that relied on sources other than just access and qualitative research. This shift in methodology, combined with this growing interest in understanding the roots and drivers of China's increasing push to influence narratives globally, are what ultimately got me here.
Eleanor M. Albert: As a fellow China analyst trying to study aspects of foreign policy without being able to get there, being creative—whether that's rearranging the types of questions you're interested in or the tools that you use—ends up being a challenge.
You were talking about the digital aspect of influence operations. Within the digital side of things, there are multiple tools. Could you provide an overview of the tools that fall under China's "umbrella" of overseas influence operations?
Kenton Thibaut: To first understand the how of influence operations, I think it's important to understand the why. I like to use the framework of what's called discourse power or huayuquan to understand the logic behind Chinese influence operations, and thus how they're operationalized through different tools and tactics.
Beginning around the 2000s, we see China's leadership coming to the belief that the political, economic, technological, linguistic, and cultural dominance of the United States allowed it to gain "discourse dominance." And this translates into geopolitical power because this discourse dominance means the U.S. was able to structure the international system to its advantage in terms of both a value orientation, that is making the international system one that is structured around universal values, and institutional arrangements. For example, the Bretton Woods system with the United States as the core and which is designed to perpetuate U.S. economic principles like free market capitalism…
From this perspective, the current international order both reinforces and serves as a tool for Western countries and especially the United States to perpetuate a continued dominance of global, political, economic, security, and value systems. So this discourse power translates into a kind of structural power.
In the past few years especially, Chinese leaders and scholars were increasingly writing about the prevalence of what's known as the “China Threat Theory” in Western and especially U.S. thinking about China. This was informed by this idea that war is inevitable because of the incompatibility of China's system with U.S. values. This is what the China Threat Theory is supposed to be.
This has led to a belief that, given the prevalence of this narrative and given that the current structure of the international system is built around a U.S. system hostile to China's rise, China needs to develop its own discourse power. This in short includes two aspects: the power to speak or articulate a coherent and cohesive vision for the world order, and the power to be heard or having this messaging around this vision gain buy-in from a global audience. The tools China uses to gain discourse power are wide-ranging and can stand alone or be used as part of a toolkit of influence tactics.
On the one end, you have more overt efforts. Your traditional diplomacy, public messaging, strategic communication, official narratives that are put out in traditional and social media really promoting Chinese perspectives, Chinese norms, China's value proposition to the world on what it can bring.
Going towards the more covert end of the spectrum, there are information operations carried out by inauthentic networks on social media for example, or special operations undertaken by units in the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to conduct espionage or undermine activities in places like Taiwan, for example. In 2020, there was a lot of social media activity around trying to spread some false narratives about Taiwanese politicians and to undermine Tsai Ing-wen especially.
Much of these activities also really depend on the people-to-people connections that China's established across the world and in target countries. And it also leverages the network of United Front organizations across the world, which are coordinated through Chinese embassies to both engage in diplomatic work, but also to coordinate on the more covert side of things, monitoring of persons of interest, or to exert pressure on government officials to have them exert more editorial guidance on local news organizations, to promote pro-China stories, or toe the line on Chinese talking points. Those are some of the things in their toolkit.
Eleanor M. Albert: Are there distinct regional differences in the type of strategies that are used in the rolling out of this toolkit? I presume the U.S. and the West are targeted differently than the Global South, and even across the Global South, there's probably a lot of difference whether you're a strong economic partner of China's within certain parts of Africa, maybe you're a BRI signatory, maybe you're not….
Kenton Thibaut: There definitely are. My research does focus a lot on the Global South, so I can speak more to this. China sees the Global South as more receptive to its norms and governance principles, or more primed to be receptive. [China] seeks to shore up influence in these countries as a way to mitigate what it sees as growing Western opposition to its rise. It also sees the Global South as regions where it can make pretty quick strides in gaining more buy-in and operationalizing its aims to create more of this alternative global arrangement.
A couple of standout strategies here include what's called using international friends for international propaganda and borrowing a boat out to sea. The first one, the international friends, relies on co-opting the voices of foreigners and foreign leaders to spread pro-China messaging. The second relies on using international platforms, like social media platforms, to spread Chinese narratives in target environments. This includes expanding China's media footprint, conducting propaganda campaigns, and leveraging China's influence to gain government support for its initiatives in international forums like the United Nations.
One way that this really stands out in the Global South is China's engagement in regional organizations like the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the Forum on China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, and the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in the Middle East. China leverages its position in these forums to gain support for international initiatives and to deepen economic and political engagement and to promote state narratives.
One example of this is in the agreements that are signed during these regional meetings, China will include provisions and cooperation agreements that say things like the FOCAC supports China's position on the One China principle, supports the fact that Hong Kong is an internal matter of China's… This is an institutional layering strategy to build up some of the scaffolding for China to refer to when it seeks to legitimize its activities in Hong Kong or in areas of its interest when it comes to Taiwan.
Also, these provisions on Taiwan seek to erode the status of Taiwan as a "sovereign country" under international law. So in the event of a reunification, Taiwan would not have a sovereign status under international law that would make, for example, an invasion an illegal act under international law. This is the strategy that China uses to create some institutional layers around its strategic goals.
And you can see how important this is in China's broader global communications push. For example, in May 2021, Xi made some remarks to the Central Committee and described international friends as important vectors for gaining discourse power and described them as China's top soldiers of propaganda against the enemy as China rises. You can see that the Global South and these efforts in fostering these ties really are important to China in creating this bulwark against what it sees as Western opposition.
Another standout facet of operations in the Global South particularly is that criticism of the United States and other Western countries is a pervasive theme. China often positions itself as a defender of the rights and interests of developing countries in contrast to the countries of the West. And it's important to say that these narratives often draw on the real grievances of local communities regarding the harmful legacies of Western colonialism and political interference.
And it's important to say that while findings regarding the impacts of China's overall messaging are mixed in terms of overall support for China, public support for China, more recent assessments do indicate that its narratives may be gaining resonance among global audiences and on specific issues. For example, a recent study from Yale University showed that across 19 countries in the Global South, Chinese propaganda was effective at persuading audiences that the China model is superior to that of democratic political systems in delivering growth and stability. That is, that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] delivers growth, stability, and competent leadership.
The findings showed that improvement in favorability of China's governance model makes especially striking gains in the regions of the Global South when audiences are exposed to these narratives, in particular among countries in Latin America and Africa. This engagement, along with crafting narratives that really do speak to the real interests and historical experiences of many of these countries, has led to some gains in terms of at least other countries' views of China as providing strong and competent governance capabilities.
Eleanor M. Albert: That's fascinating. What you just laid out was definitely on the more diplomatic spectrum of the broader toolkit. Are there examples that you could point to of perhaps some of the more coercive elements of that toolkit?
Kenton Thibaut: One case study that we recently did was in South Africa. Chinese entities in South Africa have increased their ownership in some independent news outlets, one of which is called IOL. Since the investment in IOL has increased, there's been an explosion of pro-China messages and that's not problematic on its face. But one example is during the COVID-19 pandemic.
China embarked on this real propaganda campaign to say that the origin of COVID-19 was not in China, but that it actually came from a bio lab in Fort Dietrich, Maryland. This is interesting because this is a narrative that was taken from Russia previously, but they recycled this narrative from Russia and said that COVID-19 actually originated in the U.S.
There was this big media push to spread doubt about the origins of COVID-19, and IOL published an editorial from a reporter who received a lot of training from China [and] has been a very, very pro-China voice. This person basically reiterated statements from the Chinese embassy in South Africa asking about the origins of COVID-19 and repeating Chinese talking points.
China then takes these editorials from these foreign friends and then presents them in Chinese media and Xinhua as being from an independent assessment. So they're taking reporting from journalists in country who are "foreign friends" of China and who are presenting state talking points, and then presenting them back as other independent reports that are reinforcing separately China's statements about the origins of COVID-19.
We call this information laundering. It's actually all coming from the same source, which is a Chinese state source, but through this citation laundering, it makes it seem as if there are more points of evidence in support of the Chinese view, when it's actually all coming from the same place. This is problematic in that we were dealing with a global pandemic, trying to come up with global responses, local responses. And Chinese talking points about the origins of COVID-19 really took over IOL's coverage of COVID-19. It took over a lot of the coverage of COVID-19 in areas where China has a really a strong media presence, which took away from the ability of reporters to focus on the local situation in a time when getting quick access and updates to COVID news was pretty important. So it's problematic in that it's disinformation, but it's also problematic in a negative sense in that it crowds out the space for reporting on local issues about something that has real significant public health implications.
Another example is in Zimbabwe. China has been very active in trying to dissuade civil society organizations from protesting against some of its mining activities because they've had some local environmental impacts. In Zimbabwe, on global social media, on Twitter, the Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe started this social media campaign basically saying that those in the civil society organizations that were protesting China's presence or that were reporting on Chinese activities in a way that was unfavorable to them were actually being paid by the [U.S.] State Department to produce these stories.
These are civil society actors that had previously been harassed and detained by the government in Zimbabwe. So this additional campaign actually provided some political cover to the ruling ZANU-PF party to crack down on these civil society actors and claim that they were paid agents of the state. They used this as part of the rationale for passing a pretty draconian social media law and as political cover to detain civil society activists. China was very actively involved in spreading these messages and in supporting the ZANU-PF party. So these are some of the more nefarious implications or impacts of Chinese influence operations.
Eleanor M. Albert: That's a super interesting spectrum. I think what's fascinating about all of this is there's a lot of attention on this nefariousness. But at the same time, it also really feels like most great powers really care about perception and the narratives that exist in the world about them. So I'm curious, I'm not trying to compare apples and oranges, but other states have tools to engage in activities, there's whole branches of foreign ministries that are all about public diplomacy… How do Chinese activities to boost this narrative and emphasize discourse power match up against activities and tools that other major powers might have, say, the United States?
Kenton Thibaut: I would say that Chinese influence operations differ from that of, say, the United States or Western countries in that China takes a pretty active role in shaping the information environments of target countries. This is most clearly seen in its role in local media and where investment and presence are large and where Chinese interests dictate. Chinese entities exert a lot of editorial pressure on their local counterparts. This is a more unique feature of Chinese influence ops and it does have impacts on local media environments, and it impacts the ability of civil society actors locally to engage most fully in the political culture and governance of their countries.
This is a little bit different from what other Western countries do, not to draw comparisons as much, but there tend to be more no-strings attached type of support for, for example, supporting of independent journalism without editorial guidelines. In that vein, the editorial pressure, which is then backed up by pressure from Chinese embassy officials, it's an entangling of both government and civil society. It's a society, whole-of-government, top-down pressure on a media environment or an information space that seeks to shape it to be in China's interest, which either is directly targeting civil society actors as in the case of Zimbabwe, or it crowds out the space for more independent journalism.
Eleanor M. Albert: I'm curious about this information environment because we're in a time where traditional media still exists and is influential, especially as a vehicle through this citation laundering as you were talking about.
But we also have social media which simultaneously can be a tool to amplify all of this information, even though in China, platforms like Twitter aren't present, but increasingly we've seen a lot of Chinese government and non-government people be more active on Twitter.
At the same time, you have the rise that we've seen of TikTok, which has become a contentious presence in this environment. How do we try and have a sound analysis of the role that some of these things play within the information environment?
Everyone thought the internet was this great beacon of free information originally, but we've really seen that things are much more double-edged sword and that there are malign and benevolent ways in which the information environment can be used.
Kenton Thibaut: I think that's a really great point. At least on other platforms like Twitter, like YouTube, like Facebook, there have been long-documented instances of coordinated, inauthentic behavior on the part of suspected Chinese accounts, affiliated accounts, and users. And those were in the interest of Chinese aims and objectives around things like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang especially, and then more generally towards its diaspora, much more targeted narratives.
The TikTok debate… that still remains to be seen. My feeling about it is that we haven't seen enough publicly about how the government could actually influence... one of the issues around it is access to Americans’ data. But another issue is this idea of the Chinese government being able to influence the algorithm and conduct information operations.
[I] haven't seen enough on that to really understand the ways in which that could or could not happen. But I will say that there is a history of these platforms being used for nefarious purposes by different actors, including China.
There should be a platform-agnostic way to deal with these issues of foreign influence and foreign interference. I think those things are still being developed, too. But also, I think the question that also is being grappled with right now is does country of origin really matter when it comes to understanding how platforms can be deployed as a tool for influencing local political environments?
Let me add one more thing. It is difficult to imagine that forever and ever we're only going to have platforms that are Western in origin. So coming up with a way to think about what are the actual harms, beyond and including foreign interference and influence, to include other online harms like harassment or issues with privacy that go beyond just the TikTok debate.
Eleanor M. Albert: To conclude, I wanted to just pick your brain about the short to medium term, and if you were to say you were focusing on just one trend in this space, what are you watching in China influence operations space and why?
Kenton Thibaut: One thing I'm really watching right now is how this current round of reorganization will shake out. As expected, lots of power going to the Central Committee, but I'm really interested to see how this affects—or if it does—where influence operations and discourse power activities get housed, who has control over what, if there's a consolidation in one area or another. I think that will say a lot about where it is housed and who is getting control of what. I think it'll say a lot about the priorities for influence operations going forward.
The U.S.-China Nexus is created, produced, and edited by me, Eleanor M. Albert. Our music is from Universal Production Music. Special thanks to Shimeng Tong, Tuoya Wulan, and Amy Vander Vliet. For more initiative programming, videos, and links to events, visit our website at uschinadialogue.georgetown.edu. And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.